CRACKING THE CEILING, RAISING THE FLOOR

15 years ago, gender equality was not a primary concern for most businesses or governments but this has steadily emerged on the agenda. Today it is widely acknowledged that there is a
strong business case for gender equality and that women’s empowerment contributes significantly to sustainable development.

Research in various countries indicates that greater gender diversity has a positive impact on business. For example, companies with a higher representation of women at the most senior levels deliver stronger organisational and financial performance and better corporate governance than companies run solely by men. Meanwhile, governments are coming to the realisation that gender equality plays a significant part in both economic growth and sustainable development. However, the challenge remains that as many as 860 million women do not partake in the global economy. Some countries still fail to engage half of their available resources in the formal workforce; and where women are engaged in the workforce, few make it
to the top.


THE WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT PRINCIPLES: EQUALITY MEANS BUSINESS

The Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) are a joint initiative of UN Women and the Global Compact, and was launched on International Women’s Day in 2010. The WEPs comprise seven principles for business on how to empower women and achieve gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community. The WEPs are comprehensive, setting out all the actions that business should and can take to
achieve their gender equality goals, and they urge a systematic approach to embedding gender equality.

The initiative aims to raise business’ awareness of what they can do to respect and support women’s rights and the business case for doing so. It involves a leadership commitment to add greater impetus to the business’ own efforts towards gender
equality, supports companies with tools and resources to assist with implementation, and through global and local activities helps to build coalitions of organisations working together to achieve gender equality for all.

Thus far, nearly 1,000 companies have signed the CEO Statement of Support for the WEPs, and 40 per cent of these companies are also Global Compact participants. This is a rapid increase from its launch in 2010, when 39 companies initially signed on. The majority of current signatories are based in Europe (38%) and Asia (34%).


FROM TALK TO ACTION AT THE CORPORATE LEVEL

The issue of gender equality has steadily risen on the business agenda, and an increasing number of companies address gender equality in a more systematic way. Communication on Progress reports submitted by WEPs signatories indicate
that the most significant progress with regard to policies and practices related to supporting women’s empowerment and advancing gender equality is in the workplace. This includes policies and practices related to access to child and dependent care, and gender equality in senior management and board positions. Data from the 2015 Implementation Survey supports this, showing that 84% of respondents have a non-discrimination policy in place, a 7% increase in the last seven years. A smaller percentage of companies have policies and practices in place related to gender equality in the marketplace and community.

The WEPs initiative supports businesses by providing a comprehensive framework for addressing gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community. By ensuring that the CEO of signatories signs a Statement of Support, the issue of
gender equality is also raised to the highest level in the signatory organisation. The WEPs initiative has helped build a community of best practice for business by providing a platform to discuss challenging issues and share experiences and learnings with peers and relevant stakeholders.

Mainstreaming gender in sustainability reporting and encouraging greater transparency and reporting on gender equality is another role that the WEPs initiative plays. As of 2014 the Global Compact signatories to the WEPs are required to report their progress on these issues as part of their overall Communication on Progress reporting.


A CLEAR SET OF EXPECTATIONS

The external environment is becoming more favourable for companies that are working on implementing the WEPs. Gender equality legislation has strengthened in a number of countries. For instance, we have seen the introduction of stricter
penalties for sexual harassment, and some countries have established quotas for women on boards of directors of publicly listed companies. Still, the gap remains between legislation and practice, and some legal and institutional frameworks also
limit or prevent women’s participation in the economy. There is recognition that governments have a role to play in creating an enabling environment for the private sector to advance the WEPs including by addressing discriminatory laws.

Even though the initiative is still relatively new, governments have expressed strong interest in the WEPs. Among other things, heads of state and governments of G7 countries stated their support for the WEPs and called on companies worldwide to integrate them into their activities in the G7 Leaders’ Declaration, the outcome document of the 2015 Summit. The Global Compact working with UN Women has through an extensive consultation process developed the recognised, global framework for business and gender equality, and has presented a clear set of expectations for what companies should be doing to reach gender equality in their organisations.


RADICAL CHANGE IN ATTITUDES

Corporate mind-sets related to gender equality have shifted radically in recent years. In addition to acknowledging that there is a strong business case for gender equality, businesses are also realising that they can positively influence women’s lives through their own operations, by supporting women in the marketplace and the local communities in which they live; not only by empowering their own female employees.

There is also increased awareness of how social norms and institutions  systematically discriminate against women - in many cases rendering their chances of success impossible. Programs aimed at boosting women as well as programs to
tackle institutional challenges are needed.

This is the area where the WEPs initiative has likely achieved the greatest influence to date. Most of the initiative’s activities have focused on raising awareness of business’ role in gender equality and promoting the role of leadership and the WEPs
roadmap to take progress to the next level.


GOING FORWARD

The WEPs are considered by many signatories and stakeholders as a valuable framework for companies to structure their work towards achieving gender equality.

Thus far, a limited number of companies have systemically implemented the Principles, and the companies that are doing so are at different levels of maturity. This is natural as the Principles were only launched in 2010; moving from awareness- raising to strengthening implementation is in line with the initiative’s strategy.

While the Principles provide guidance on policies and programs, the WEPs can help generate important discussions around the need to address stereotypes and unconscious bias, which are seen as key barriers to successful implementation of the Principles by companies.

As the initiative grows, the WEPs have the potential to make a more significant impact on corporate practices and mind-sets than it has to date, and perhaps even setting the global norm for expectations on business and gender equality.

THE WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT PRINCIPLES ANNUAL EVENT AND CEO LEADERSHIP AWARDS

The Global Compact and UN Women bring leaders from business, government, civil society and academia each year for the flagship Women’s Empowerment Principles Annual Event. Growing from 150 participants in 2010 to over 600 in 2015, the WEPs Annual Event is now the premier UN event focused on gender equality and business.

The event provides a stock taking opportunity, highlighting how companies are working to implement the seven Principles, the challenges encountered and innovative solutions identified. The Women’s Empowerment Principles CEO Leadership Awards were introduced to provide further insight into how business leaders are using the WEPs framework and championing gender equality around the world. The awards recognise five CEOs for their support for the WEPs and actions
they have taken to advance gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community.

I salute the Global Compact and UN Women for understanding how important it was to forge this
relationship. The adoption of the Women’s Empowerment Principles is the best step forward that the Global Compact has taken in the last 15 years
Mary Robinson, Chair & President of Mary Robinson Foundation & Former President of Ireland, Keynote speech at 2015 WEPs Annual E
THE WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT PRINCIPLES ANNUAL EVENT AND CEO LEADERSHIP AWARDS

The Global Compact and UN Women bring leaders from business, government, civil society and academia each year for the flagship Women’s Empowerment Principles Annual Event. Growing from 150 participants in 2010 to over 600 in 2015, the WEPs Annual Event is now the premier UN event focused on gender equality and business.

The event provides a stock taking opportunity, highlighting how
companies are working to implement the seven Principles, the challenges encountered and innovative solutions identified. The Women’s Empowerment Principles CEO Leadership Awards were introduced to provide further insight into how business leaders are using the WEPs framework and championing gender equality around the world. The awards recognise five CEOs for their support for the WEPs and actions
they have taken to advance gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community.